Sacred Numbers in the Bible
Posted by foryourfaith on January 3, 2010
Echoing mythic traditions that go back before the earliest civilizations, the people of ancient Israel saw mystical and symbolic significances in certain numbers and were often given to incorporating them in their accounts of sacred events and omens. The precise symbolic intent of any of these numbers in a specific passage in the Bible can never be proved to the satisfaction of all interpreters, but some generalizations hold true in many cases.
Two is the number expressing both the duality of opposites and the unity in their pairing. Two appears in this sense in Genesis, in the persons of Adam and Eve, and in the text relating how the animals came, two by two, to Noah’s Ark. Subsequently, the number two appears in the tradition of the two stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai and in the stories depicting opposites (Cain and Abel, Leah and Rachel; Martha and Mary).
Three represents the many faces of completeness – heaven, earth, and the underworld; beginning, middle, and end. Similarly in the Bible, many rituals are carried out in threes – daily prayers and yearly fasts, for example. Three is also associated with sacrifices – animals often had to be three years old (Genesis 15:9); fruit was not to be harvested until three years after the tree was planted (Leviticus 19:23).
Four represents cosmic order, as in the four phases of the moon, the four cardinal points of the earth, the four rivers of Paradise (Genesis 2:10), the four winds of heaven (Jeremiah 49:36), the four guardians of the throne of God, and so forth. But the number can also represent the adversaries of order – for example, the Four Horsemen who bring calamity on the earth (Revelation 6:1-8) and the four sore acts of Judgment (sword, famine, evil beasts, and pestilence) with which God threatens the idolators of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 14:21).
Seven is the most important number of all, tracing back to the cosmology of the Sumerians who recognized seven “planets” – the sun and moon, along with Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. As Earth was believed to be under planetary influence, the number of the planets was viewed as a key to the correspondences between the changes in the heavens and those in the world of men. Seven was taken as the number of days making up a week – note that the names of the days of the week remain a living witness to the role of the planets in our lives, with the seventh day ultimately becoming sanctified in the Judaic tradition as the Sabbath, the day on which God rested after creation. The weekly pattern gave rise to the special sacredness of the Seventh Month, to the Sabbatical Year, the seventh year in which even the land itself was allowed to rest and remain fallow; and to the Jubilee Year, which came after the seventh seventh, or forty-ninth, year and marked a special time in which all Hebrew slaves were to be free, all debts resolved, and ancestral property returned to its original owner (Leviticus 25).
Jews commemorated the number seven in the seven branches of the menorah, in the seven-day feasts of Passover and of Tabernacles, in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom (Proverbs 9:1), and in many small rituals, such as the sprinkling of bullock’s blood seven times (Leviticus 4:6) and the sacrifice of seven lambs (Numbers 28:11)
Seven continues to have symbolic prominence in the New Testament, with Jesus telling Peter that it is not enough that he forgive the brother who had sinned against him seven times, but “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:21-22). Seven is also the number of Greek-speaking Christians appointed by the Twelve Apostles in Acts 6:3).
The New Testament concludes in a great surge of sevens, with heptads, explicit and implicit, tumbling forth from many verses. Here, for example, in Revelation 1:19-20, Jesus tells John, “Now write what you see, what is said what is to take place hereafter. As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lamp-stands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches and the seven lamp-stands are the seven churches.” And later, John tells that he has beheld a lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, “which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (Revelation 5:6). In a larger sense, then, seven denotes perfection, totality.
Twelve may have taken hold as a mystical number in the Middle East some 5,000 years ago. The ancient people recognized 12 lunar cycles corresponding loosely to 12 months in the year, and they divided the day and the night into 12-hour periods. They went on to organize the stars into 12 signs of the zodiac, and from their observations of the wanderings of the 7 planets through the 12 houses of heaven was born astrology.
The Bible tells that Jacob-Israel had 12 sons (Genesis 35:22-27) and that each of these became the founder of one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the people of God (Genesis 49:28). As if to link himself with the elective purposes of God, Jesus took Twelve Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4) to assist him in his mission. There were 24 classes of priests and Levites (1 Chronicles 24:4) and 48 Levitical cities (Numbers 35:7). And again in the Book of Revelation, the number 12 rivals 7 in importance when symbolizing the salvation of God’s people. There are 24 elders around the throne of God and 144,000 of the saved (Revelation 4:4; 7:4). The perfection of the new Jerusalem is seen in its 12 gates, each “a single pearl,” and 12 foundations, each adorned with jewels. Its circumference is 12,000 furlongs, and its walls are 144 cubits high (Revelation 21:10-21; Ezekiel 48:30-35).
Aside from their sacred symbolism, some of these numbers were also used to express “round” or infinite numbers in the following manner: 2 for a couple, 3 for a few, 7 for many, or 40 for a long period of time. And so far as larger numbers taken at face value, but rather to express generalities – for example, the word for “thousand” in Hebrew denotes “a crowd.”